Fr. Lawrence Ogwang
The Hidden Treasures in Elders
In African traditional society, elders are treasured for whom and what they are. They are respected and honored by their communities for their spirituality, wisdom, high intelligence, knowledge, life experiences and teachings. They have a deep understanding of people and communities. They are recognized for their gifts, for their love and knowledge of the land and the language and for their knowledge of traditions. Elders are the carriers and emblems of communally generated and mediated knowledge. In the western paradigm, such relations and processes of knowledge transmission are considered “informal”. Yet, these same processes are at the heart and soul of what is ‘formal” to Indigenous knowledge.
Elders are first and foremost teachers and role models. They are vital in the teaching process, from infanthood to adulthood. The Elders have the answers to the questions of:
Who are we?
What are we doing on the planet?
What do we need to do and who do we need to be to give our life meaning and purpose?
(Notice how it is ‘we’ not ‘I’ who is asking the questions) Without the Elders therefore, life is meaningless and has no purpose. Because of these, people revere and honor elders across the globe. The respect given to elders however, vary from one society to another, community to community and tribe to tribe. There are those who see in them (elders) treasures that are hard to find while, there are those who see no value in them because, they are old fashioned: They say the elderly are not important at all to society. The elderly don’t work to support society. The elderly don’t have fun or entertain people like children do. The elderly are just a bunch of cantankerous burdensome group to society that have nothing to live for and are better off dead. If there are too many elderly, then the civilization fails because they cannot support.
Others even say the elderly are old, boring, stupid, evil and stubborn. They contribute nothing to civilized society and they have nothing to teach young people that they couldn’t learn themselves or from someone younger. In Lango, most of the communities accord great respect to the elders because of whom and what they are. In the tradition of Lango, the elders are responsible for many things including educating the young people either in form of songs, riddles, stories etc. This education is mostly formal and informal. Children are taught (by their mother or siblings) morality and how to address their relatives and respect other people. When they get older, boys are taught by their father or male relatives and girls by their mother or female relatives. Games, folk stories, myths, proverbs, and riddles play a very important role in Lango education.
Elders also play a great role in conflict resolution. According to Ogwari Maureen Achieng, 2015, conflicts existed long before colonization of Africa and it was the task of the traditional leaders or elders to solve and manage these conflicts. Most of the African societies still prefer the use of traditional and informal justice and reconciliation forums to help in conflict resolution. This is because most of the populations still live in the rural areas, limited infrastructures in the state justice systems and the unfair justice systems provided at the formal courts which tend to favor the rich in society hence it cannot be trusted. The traditional elders and chiefs mediate in violent conflicts where they give penalties which focus on compensation and restitution in order to restore status quo.
These leaders also act as facilitators in conflict resolution whereby they reconcile parties by helping them negotiate in a peaceful manner so as to live harmoniously in the community. African societies also have a preference for traditional institutions because it deals with reconciliation well embedded in the African culture, allows flexibility in its proceedings and re-establishes social harmony.
Traditional Lango elders have been involved in solving conflicts in the society for many decades. These elders are still highly respected and useful in conflict management in Lango, therefore, their input in conflict management and resolution should not be overlooked and instead, they should be encouraged, facilitated and included especially in mediation processes.
Maintaining peace is among the main roles played by traditional elders in many African societies especially in Lango. Their influence goes a long way in resolving disputes between family members, within and among communities and occasionally across state lines. Elders give counsel to those in need; listen to the problems of the group; help shed light on difficult situations; advise and guide the young and in return, they are revered, nurtured, respected and cared for until they pass on to the spirit world.
These and many other roles played by elders warrants them respect for what they have in their store keeps our world and culture moving. We must accept that even in this world of technology, we still don’t know more than our elders. Hence the old saying; what an elder sees while seated, the young man cannot see even if he climbs a tree. Let us treasure elders for Old is Gold.
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